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The Kids Are All Right
Michael Bamberger
September 02, 2002
Baseball is alive and well in Williamsport, Pa.—and in Mattoon, Ill., where Cal Ripken Jr. has planted the seeds of a rivalry with Little League
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September 02, 2002

The Kids Are All Right

Baseball is alive and well in Williamsport, Pa.—and in Mattoon, Ill., where Cal Ripken Jr. has planted the seeds of a rivalry with Little League

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Taking on the Big Boys

The Babe Ruth League had been around for nearly half a century before it renamed its Bambino youth division Cal Ripken Baseball in 1999. Even so, Ripken's league—and the world series it holds for 11- and 12-year-olds—has a long way to go to match Little League baseball.

LITTLE LEAGUE

CAL RIPKEN

Age of players

5-12

5-12

Number of participants

2.1 million

600,000

Countries with leagues

104

6

Year founded

1939

1951*

Unofficial motto

Teamwork, sportsmanship and fair play

Teaching the Ripken Way

Marquee event

Little League World Series

Cal Ripken Baseball World Series

Location

Williamsport, Pa.

Mattoon, Ill.?

Future major leaguers who played in world series

23

None

2002 champion

Louisville

Visalia, Calif.

2002 title game network

ABC

Fox Sports Net

Total 2002 world series games televised

20

3

Foreign champions

29

None

* Year Babe Ruth League was founded

? Will move to Aberdeen, Md., in 2003

These are baseball's good old days. Maybe not in Milwaukee or Miami, major league outposts where the teams are lousy and the citizenry has better things to worry about than millionaire owners feuding with millionaire players. But the pastime was alive and well early Sunday night in Williamsport, Pa., where the final of the Little League World Series was played. Left in the hands of kids, baseball's fine.

Throughout Little League's 10-day world series, attendance was way up, 10% higher than last year's. More than 41,000 people attended Sunday night's finale as families filled the giant hill behind the outfield fence, sprawling on blankets and lodging in lawn chairs, enjoying one of the great free rites of the American summer. (There's no charge for admission in Williamsport. Beat that, Bud.) Sunday's telecast, live on ABC, drew a 5.9 overnight rating. Those viewers saw Louisville beat Sendai, Japan, 1-0, behind the arm and bat of 12-year-old righthander Aaron Alvey, who homered for the game's only run and struck out 11 en route to setting series records for strikeouts (44) and scoreless innings (21), and tying the mark for consecutive no-hit innings (12). Saturday night's Little League U.S. final, the first ever televised by a major network in prime time, drew a 3.7 overnight rating on ABC. And this year ESPN carried 18 Little League World Series games, eight more than it showed just two years ago.

The game was also thriving late Sunday afternoon in the heartland town of Mattoon, Ill., where a good portion of the population came out to see the final of the third annual Cal Ripken World Series—and to see Cal Ripken Jr. himself. The scene was much the same as in Williamsport, but with a little rebel spirit thrown in from an unlikely source. Ripken, the ultimate baseball establishment man, has attached his name (and devoted much of his first summer off in forever) to an insurgent league. Since 1999 the 12-and-under division of the Babe Ruth League has been called Cal Ripken Baseball. Shortly before Tony Gwynn broadcast the 2002 Little League final for ABC, Ripken worked his game for Fox Sports Net.

Every seat was taken in the wooden stands of Mattoon's Lawson Park (capacity 10,024) on Sunday afternoon as Visalia, Calif., defeated Korea 6-1. The big hit was a bases-loaded triple by Matt Chavez, a substitute who was at the plate only because Visalia coach Adrian Acevedo had promised Ripken that he would get all of his players in the game. Former big leaguers Don Mattingly and Ryne Sandberg were on hand. Next year the Ripken World Series will move permanently to the Iron Man's hometown, Aberdeen, Md. Anyone who has talked to the Baltimore Orioles legend about his league—Ripken is, in effect, its unpaid commissioner—has come away with the same impression: Ripken is approaching his postplaying life with the same determination that made him the alltime leader in consecutive games played. He is devoted to the league that bears his name.

Little League International is by far the biggest youth baseball organization in the world, with 2.1 million boys and girls under the age of 13 playing in 104 countries. Ripken Baseball is a distant second, with 600,000 boys and girls playing in the U.S. and five other countries (box, page 53). Over time, as Ripken infuses into his league his baseball philosophy—that the game should be fun—his numbers may well catch up to Little League's. The man does nothing halfway.

For now both leagues have a good thing going, even if, as Ripken implies but never actually says, Little League sometimes takes itself too seriously. What's not to like? Millions of Mini-Me's playing a junior version of major league baseball, expertly mimicking big league manners, right down to the way some five-foot-nothing kid, disgusted with a called strike, steps away from the plate and reaches down for a fistful of batter's-box dirt. This year the team from Harlem that made it to the Little League quarterfinals showed a joie de baseball unimaginable among the all-business New York Yankees.

In some ways the 11- and 12-year-old ballplayers in Mattoon and Williamsport were playing a better game than their grown-up brethren. The pitchers worked quickly, and the games—the perfect length at six innings—were played in well under two hours. About the only thing that slowed games down were pitchers who couldn't find the strike zone and coaches who couldn't find their personal mute buttons.

Ripken has solutions for those problems. He'd like his league to expand the strike zone up and down, to encourage kids to swing. (You learn more by whiffing than by walking, Ripken says, and more to the point, it's more fun to swing the bat than to let it snooze on your shoulder.) He dreams of a rule requiring coaches to speak in nothing louder than a whisper. His nine-year-old son, Ryan, plays Ripken Baseball, so Cal's understanding of the frustrations of players he calls "little guys" is deep and sympathetic.

In Williamsport last week there was a lot of earnest commentary, from old-school Little League hands and professional commentators alike, about showboating and about home run trots that bordered on break dancing. Ripken's basically fine with that stuff. "Let kids be kids," he says.

Someday he would love for the winner of the Cal Ripken World Series to play the winner of the Little League World Series. Another dream. "That's nothing we would be interested in," says Lance Van Auken, the director of media relations for Little League. "It wouldn't be an even playing field. The rules about how we draw our players are too different. Little League has more geographic limitations." (Because Ripken's league has fewer participants, it fields its teams from a larger geographical area.)

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